Preparing Businesses When They Can’t Prepare Themselves

Ira Tannenbaum

Ira was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in Community Resilience and Preparedness. 

As an emergency manager for the largest city in the United States, I’ve had my fair share of interesting conversations.  When I think back to some of the more memorable ones I always think of a small business owner trying to explain to me why he didn’t think that he could or should prepare for emergencies. It wasn’t that he didn’t think it was important, he explained to me, but rather that in the scope of competing priorities – cash flow, business development, regulatory compliance, rent, payroll, etc. – it was just one that would never rise to the top of his list to justify the time and money. His focus, as he put it, was his business’ daily survival, and the ‘what ifs’ would have to wait. As our conversation drew to a close (for that day), he asked me for one thing as a public sector employee: please don’t add to his already lengthy list of regulations in an effort to jump to the top of the list.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on that particular exchange because it embodied some of the most significant challenges that emergency managers face today.  We don’t have specific tasks like putting out fires, removing debris or treating patients – we focus our efforts on making sure that the people and organizations doing response and recovery have the resources they depend on to support our communities’ resiliency. Some aspects of an emergency may have straight-forward solutions, but more often than not disasters expose dependencies that many people haven’t even considered. Our dynamic and wonderfully diverse communities are webs of interdependencies that residents and businesses often take for granted. When I thought about this in its most simplistic form, I saw two key elements that we could leverage to enhance the preparedness levels across the whole community.

Residents rely on local organizations for supplies (businesses), services (community organizations) and often employment, and local organizations rely on community residents to support their businesses and work in their facilities.

We’ve also seen that local organizations (businesses and not-for-profit groups) maintain a line of communication within their communities (employees, volunteers and residents) that is consistent and trusted, something that we as emergency managers are constantly striving for.

The Partners in Preparedness program was born out of an effort to present our message of preparedness in a way that encourages businesses and organizations to leverage their trusted communication pathways to promote resilience in a way that is beneficial to them, their audience and the community. Our most important step was sitting down with representatives of businesses and organizations and simply seeking to develop solutions to any of the barriers that were preventing them from engaging in a significant preparedness effort.

As for that small business owner who sent me down this path, we got together a few months ago to go over a few things. He was pleasantly surprised that I had listened to his challenges and that we had developed solutions to address his concerns without adding to his regulatory burden. I am proud to say that he is now one of our Partners in Preparedness.

Ira Tannenbaum is the Director of Public/Private Initiatives for the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

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